Author: Jodi Picoult
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read in May 2019)
Small Great Things has been on my TBR for a while, but I doubt I would have gotten to it if we hadn’t picked it for our May Book Club meeting. I have very mixed feelings on it – my book club meeting tonight may change that, but right now I’m feeling very middle of the road about the book. I didn’t like it, I didn’t dislike it. I’m probably firmly in the 2.5-3 star range.
Small Great Things is about labour & delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson. She’s worked hard her entire life to overcome institutionalized racism and succeed as a black woman. She studied nursing at Yale and has been working in L&D for 20 years. She is well respected and has worked hard to give her son Edison the best start in life. For the most part, Ruth looks beyond race. It’s hard not to acknowledge the microaggressions she deals with on a daily basis, but she is not jaded by them. Until two white supremacists, who have just given birth to their first son, ask for Ruth to be removed from their son’s care due to personal prejudices, and the hospital acquiesces. A series of emergency events leave Ruth in an impossible position and before she knows it, she finds herself at the centre of a criminal investigation, making it harder to pretend that her race doesn’t matter.
Ruth is the protagonist of the story, but we also read from the perspective of Kennedy, Ruth’s white lawyer, and Turk, the white supremacist father. I was a little apprehensive going into this book because I’m never sure what to make of white author writing from the perspective of a black person and the last thing I wanted to read was a white saviour narrative. I’m glad the author included her note at the end, it provided an interesting perspective and I was glad to see her acknowledge her own personal shortcomings and privilege. I had questioned (while reading) whether she was the right person to write this book, which she also acknowledged, and I could appreciate that she decided to take the opportunity to target her white audience and get them thinking about racism.
The book has some interesting themes. I struggled with it at first because it’s an extremely heavy topic and I dreaded every time I would have to return to Turk’s chapter because I just hated reading from his perspective. This book is only 3 years old and it’s incredible how much more relatable (by which I mean, less shocking) Turk’s narrative has likely become since Trump came to power. I think this perspective may have shocked me a little more 3 years ago when neo-nazi’s and white supremacists were still mostly hiding in the shadows, but they’ve since become a lot more mainstream and it was exhausting and disgusting to read from Turk’s point of view, understanding there are people that think just like him in America right now.
My initial thought about Turk and Brit was that they were too much. I was sad to see the author take such a blatantly racist couple and make them the main antagonist. I was initially disappointed because I believe that white people need to read about subtle racism so they can better understand the ways in which they unknowingly perpetuate racism. Swinging too far in one direction makes it easy for people to condemn the racists and hide behind the “I’m not that bad” or “I’m not like them” narrative. But props to the author because it turns out she was trying to make the same point. I was really worried about Kennedy fitting into the white saviour narrative, which I think she still did to an extent, especially with her closing argument, but her character served the bigger purpose of drawing attention to the more subtle forms of racism and the way white people indirectly benefit from it.
So I do think the author did some small great things (see what I did there!) with this book, but it still had some shortcomings. Honestly, I just found the plot a little too basic, although maybe it fit just right for some of Picoult’s audience. I was looking for more from the plot and I wanted to challenge my thinking about race more than this book did. This is a great book if you’re just starting to think about race as a white person and you’ve never really questioned your privilege before. It was evident to me while reading that many of Picoult’s ideas came out of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on unpacking white privilege, which I think it a fantastic starting point, but I was hoping for something more thought-challenging. Personally, I’d recommend picking up Patrisse Khan-Cullors book When They Call You a Terrorist, or one of Phoebe Robinson’s books, Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay or You Can’t Touch My Hair, to better understand what it’s like to be black. (other great memoirs include Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime or Michelle Obama’s, Becoming)
Overall though, I just thought the book was too long. 500 pages is a lot and I do not feel like this plot warranted it. I wasn’t really impressed with the ending and thought some of the items were really overdone. So all of that leaves me firmly unsure of how to rate this. At the end of the day, I do hope this book challenges the perspective of Picoult’s audience, which is likely mostly white women who relate well with characters like Kennedy. I do applaud the author for taking on a topic like this, but given the choice, I would have preferred to spend my time reading a more thoughtful book written by a black author.